young in christ: thoughts on synod 2018

SynodI was grateful to be part of a workshop this week hosted by the Australian Catholic Youth Council in North Sydney. It drew together a select group of parish and diocesan youth leaders in conversation with Australia’s delegates for the October Synod on youth, Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP and Bishop Mark Edwards OMI, as well as Archbishop Comensoli.

It was a great source of learning and uplifting to meet young leaders who are exercising what can only be described as remarkable spiritual entrepreneurship within the Church in Australia. Amidst the polarisations that can mark our Church these are the young witnesses bringing fresh heart to our faith, with the bold humility well described by an ancient apologist – ‘we others, we speak little, but we live’.

The fifteenth ordinary general assembly will focus on young people, faith and vocational discernment between 3-28 October 2018. The Synod and its outcomes will provide a telling insight into the Church’s approach to evangelisation at this time. This is because our commitment to reach out to the young reflects our commitment to reach out to all those who are unchurched or weighing up if the Catholic faith might still be central or relevant to the everyday project of their lives.

The reality of disengagement and even disaffiliation from the Church on the part of young people will always be a confrontation as it suggests something about ourselves – about our capacity for relationships of discipleship with young people both personally and as a community of faith.

The conspicuous absence of young people from many of our communities, worshipping life and ordinary ministries says something about our ability to enter into their experience of life, to grasp their sensibilities, and recognise their questions and searching as filled with promise and as authentic, a way of approaching God rather than an affront or the hubris of disobedience. The uneven journey of young people within the Church throws light on our ability to dialogue with those unlike ourselves and on our capacity to suggest compelling and personal forms of holiness amid a host of unsatisfying cultural placebos. Fundamentally, the presence or otherwise of young people in our Christian community reflects our ability to witness to and proclaim the Gospel as a way of life, as an invitation to fall in love rather than an obligation to fall in line.

Recognising the Reality

Youth MassAs the Church in Australia considers its future, it is imperative to understand the interactions and experiences that comprise young people’s lives for these provide the building blocks for renewed mission with and to young people. While the Catholic faith may today occupy less surface space in Australian culture, the rise of dedicated disciples within promises to bring new depths to our Christian living and cultural impact, and encourage the whole Church in its mission to the concrete people of each generation.

While the national survey and report findings (‘Called to Fullness of Life and Love’) produced by the Australian Catholic bishops ahead of the Synod did tend to underrepresent young people weakly attached to the Church, and overrepresent young adults who are highly involved, it nevertheless stands as a valuable and significant window into the experience of young Australians with regards faith and the Church.

Affirmed by the survey is the primary influence on young people of family and friends. These two natural influences can nurture, support and raise up faith. Each can also lead young people toward disaffiliation. This phenomenon can occur, for instance, when young people feel forced to attend Church with family members, perceive hypocrisy in the lives of those closest to them, come forward from situations which may not mirror a Christian understanding of marriage and family (e.g. a third of all births in Australia are now ex-nuptial births[1]) or when they are not supported by peers who value faith or religious practice.

bishops_surveyChallengingly, among Australian Catholic youth the influence of Church or religious leaders in their key decisions and directions is thin, identified as significant by just 11% of those surveyed and aged between 16-18 years. This meek influence might be explained by a lack of personal relationship amongst some clergy and young people, the broader collapse of the Church’s credibility in the light of the sexual abuse crisis, and the real struggle of Church leaders to listen or ‘hold’ the questions that young people are asking of the Church. On this score, young Australian Catholics rated their experience of being listened at a modest 5.9 out of 10.[2]

A number of young people have expressed their weariness at being disregarded within our faith communities because of their youth or else being catechised without the opportunity to enter into genuine dialogue about the issues of faith and belief that are significant to them. It is certainly true that when the Church appears more concerned with behaviour modification than a personal encounter with the young in Christ, our ecclesial influence will wane and the potential for accompaniment will give way to alienation.

The reason that our influence – and therefore our listening – matters a great deal is because young Catholics are actively deciding whether faith and the Church will be a part of their life and future, and they are making these decisions from early adolescence. Disaffiliation is not a choice that is made with haste. As it has been suggested, it often mirrors the breakdown of any significant relationship – it happens one ‘chip’ at a time until one partner has had enough and ultimately decides it is ‘done’.[3] Provocations toward a final decision against the Church or Catholic faith can include a struggle with or disagreement with a particular Church teaching or teachings, a negative interaction with a Church leader or faith community, a process of steady emancipation from parents or grandparents committed to practice, and the accumulation of uninspired or wearisome experiences of the Church over time. Hence, the reported sense of relief for young people when they leave.[4]

Embracing the total picture of the reality of young people vis-à-vis the Church also means acknowledging those who remain engaged with the life and mission of the Church, of whom diversity remains a mark. Some young adults in the Australian survey passionately engage with traditional Catholic expressions of prayer and liturgy. Some want clarity of Church teaching amidst confusion and the cacophony of the blogosphere, while others seek less catechesis and dogmatism and more personal concern. Others shared their negative experiences when they have tried to promote Church teaching and practice in their own schools and parishes, and a lack of effective support in their practice of parish ministry, while others expressed their difficulty with the Church’s understanding of sexuality and relationships.[5]

Given the range of influences on young people, within and outside the Church, and their mixed experiences of faith, there is no one answer for the complexity of these situations, at least not without doing violence to the personal condition and circumstance of each young person which is the very subject of our evangelising mission.

Vocational Discernment

yobrek_021Positively, when Australian youth were asked how the Church can be of help to them, the responses actively invited our communities to provide guidance, to assist and counsel young people in their anxieties, personal challenges, understanding of sexuality and relationship issues.[6] As the meaning and direction of life is not uncovered in a single moment, it is incumbent upon the Church to journey with young lives in realising their own dignity and personal mission, both of which express a fundamental call to holiness.

The Synod’s preparatory document acknowledges that condescension and judgement are not exactly helpful in this project. It also insists that mutual encounter rather than one-sided prescription will be the way in which we discover a personal form of holy living, “No vocation, especially within the Church, can be placed outside [the] outgoing dynamism of dialogue”.[7] This is because our vocational horizon is not “a pre-determined fate, a task to be carried out, a ready-made script . . . God takes seriously the freedom He has given to human beings and responding to his call is a commitment that requires work, imagination, audacity, willingness to make progress also by trial and error”.[8] Accompaniment and an apprenticeship in the life of faith are essential to growth in holiness, pursued by a state of life and also in professional life.

In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis has already advised “The pace of this accompaniment must be steady and reassuring, reflecting our closeness and our compassionate gaze which also heals, liberates and encourages growth in the Christian life”.[9] It demands patience but can be sustained with the assurance that it has an immediate purpose, “To accompany them would be counterproductive if it became a sort of therapy supporting their self-absorption and ceased to be a pilgrimage with Christ to the Father . . .  Genuine spiritual accompaniment always begins and flourishes in the context of service to the mission of evangelisation”.[10]

Picture4Frustratingly for many, the accompaniment urgently desired by young Australian Catholics and urged by Pope Francis cannot be found neatly contained within a package or program. It demands in fact an entire culture of ecclesial life in which discernment is a norm and in regular evidence. When genuine discernment is not practiced in our sacramental programs, leading to fruitless reception, when RCIA processes teach people about Catholicism but neglect to train them to live as disciples, when parish pastoral councils and parish groups are more focused on ‘who will do it?’ rather than ‘where are we going?’, the offer of accompaniment to young people will appear more like false advertising than the expression of a community fully open to what God wants for the Church. The preparatory document for the Synod minces no words, “We cannot expect our offer of pastoral accompaniment towards vocational discernment to be credible to young people, unless we show that we are able to practice discernment in the ordinary life of the Church”.[1]

Conclusion

If disaffiliation from Catholic faith and the Church is a process that unfolds over time, and the reasons that people leave contain the reasons they might return, then we must commit ourselves to the patient and thoroughgoing work of creating cultures in which accompaniment is not reserved for a select few or the ‘super spiritual’ but is the ordinary experience of young people in their contact with the Church.

As set out in the preparations for the Synod, it will demand of our communities mature disciples who are faithful Christians engaged with the Church and the wider world, who constantly seek holiness, can be a confidant without judgement, who actively listen to needs and respond in kind, are deeply loving and self-aware, and who can acknowledge their own limits and know the joy and sorrows of the spiritual journey.[12] In confronting the challenges and listening to the hopes of the young, we pray that the October Synod will prompt this depth of conversion in each of us as witnesses to God’s mission.

 

[1] Australian Institute of Family Studies, Snapshots of Family Relationships 2008.

[2] Dantis, Trudy and Reid, Stephen, Called to Fullness of Life and Love: National Report on the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Youth Survey 2017 (Pastoral Research Office, 2018), 30.

[3] McCarty, Robert J., and Vitek, John M. Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics (2017), 11.

[4] Ibid., 27.

[5] Dantis and Reid, 34-36.

[6] Dantis and Reid, 41.

[7] Instrumentum Laboris for the Synod 2018, 140.

[8] Instrumentum Laboris for the Synod 2018, 121.

[9] Evangelii Gaudium 169.

[10] Evangelii Gaudium 170;173.

[11] Instrumentum Laboris for the Synod 2018, 139.

[12] Instrumentum Laboris for the Synod 2018, 132.

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synod on the family 2014

synod2The Extraordinary Synod on the Family concluded over the weekend in Rome (5-19 October, 2014), bookended by the beatification of Pope Paul VI. It proved to be an eventful, even enthralling journey for the Church, two weeks of discussion, passionate debate and prayerful discernment about the way in which the Church can best bring the Gospel to bear on the lives of millions of families as diverse as they are complex.

Given the multidimensions of family life, the issues canvassed by the bishops and participants were also broad. They included the plight of refugees, the care of children with special needs, the situation of migrant workers and the unemployed, the impact of the internet on family bonds, and then there were the distinctive concerns of African bishops whose concerns differ in striking ways from those in the affluent West (e.g. the practice of polygamy and conditions of extreme poverty).

However, and perhaps inevitably, the focus of media and popular attention ultimately fell on two specific matters: the question of Eucharist for the divorced and remarried, and the Church’s pastoral response to homosexual persons.

Controversies of the Synod

synod3As the first synod of bishops to meet under the leadership of Pope Francis, and affirming as it did many diverse views on the way in which Catholic faith speaks to human lives, the synod attracted not only generous media coverage for a Catholic get-together but wide-ranging interpretations of what was said, by whom and for what intent.

Of course, the synod discussions were pre-empted and almost overshadowed by Cardinal Kasper of Germany who in February 2014 advocated for access to communion for Catholics who have divorced and remarried. This was followed by a strong critique of his position by several other cardinals, including in the book-length reply, The Gospel of the Family, which contained a foreword by our own Australian prelate Cardinal Pell (the text of the Cardinal’s introduction is available here).

(For those interested in the pre-history of the synod, preparations began in earnest in November 2013, with a survey distributed by national bishops’ conferences to glean the opinions of Catholics on a number of Church teachings. The survey was a commendable initiative and expressed a sincere desire to be consultative though it clearly suffered from limitations, including the formulation of the questions which could be difficult for the Catholic in the street to say the least e.g. ‘How is the theory and practice of natural law in the union between man and woman challenged in light of the formation of a family?’ This survey was followed in June 2014 by the lineamenta or preparatory document for the Synod which presented the results of the November consultation and set a platform for the synod discussions to begin in earnest).

midtermreportAs the synod officially got underway this month, one of the major causes of controversy was the mid-term or post-discussion report known as the relatio post disceptationem. This was intended as a provisional snapshot of the views of the bishops thus far. However, many bishops objected to the content of this summary, noting that it was not only insufficiently grounded in Scripture and Catholic tradition but that it seemed to present the views of one or two particular bishops as the consensus of the whole assembly, which they were not.

The most strident and vocal objector to this interim report was the American cardinal Raymond Burke who argued, ‘[this document], in fact, advances positions which many Synod Fathers do not accept and, I would say, as faithful shepherds of the flock cannot accept’. Controversially, the interim report had included praise for the ‘positive aspects’ of what the Church has long considered ‘irregular’ situations, including civil unions and cohabitation, and even spoke of ‘accepting and valuing’ people of homosexual orientation  (though with the notable disclaimer ‘without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony’).

Criticism was particularly focused on the General Secretariat of the Synod which handled the information flowing out of the bishops’ discussion, with accusations that its members, including Cardinal Baldisseri, had manipulated, or at the very least swayed considerably, the content of the relatio to reflect a personal and permissive agenda.

Interpretations of the Synod

synod4As is customary, and was the case following the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the major media outlets interpreted the discussions and debates of the bishops through a political lens, with reports of ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ camps pitted one against the other (of course, Pope Francis was read as ensconced within the latter and undermined by the former, taken to be the majority).

Without denying the political nature of all human discourse, including the ordinary desire to influence outcomes and press one’s case, the heart of a synod is not the political motivations that underlie the bishops’ views but the theological arguments that are raised in accounting for those positions. Of course, the media is generally not interested in actual arguments, only assertions, and for the most part lack a theological background or concern.

In cherry-picking lines from the disputed interim report we have mentioned, as well as Pope Francis’ powerful concluding address to the Synod Fathers, the Daily Mail and even the BBC were able to run histrionic headlines such as “Massive Vatican shift on gay sex” and “Pope Francis set back on gay policy”.

The BBC coverage focused on Francis’ critique of ‘hostile inflexibility’ among so-called traditionalists and intellectuals, and implied that these adversarial forces had undermined or ‘setback’ the Pope’s more ‘progressive’ agenda on homosexuals and the remarried. Conspicuously, the report made no mention whatsoever of the pontiff’s critique in the self-same address of those who have ‘come down from the cross’ to ‘bow down to a worldly spirit instead of purifying it and bending it to the Spirit of God’ (you can read the complete address here).

More locally, broadcasters tapped into the local response to the synod, including SBS which while perpetuating the BBC caricature of a Pope Francis opposed by backward bishops, at least tried to seek out a Catholic view of things.

sbsIn my fifteen seconds in the spotlight, I shared the view that the synod represents a healthy and vital discussion for the global Catholic Church and that the Catholic bishops are mindful of the lived situations of people from across the world and mindful also of what the Gospel can bring to those contexts. I tried to underscore that the range of issues being discussed by the synod as they relate to the family were broad and that the synod represents the Church’s ongoing and sincere discernment of how best to accompany people in their life journeys, including divorcees, the civilly remarried, single parents, and gays and lesbians to whom the Gospel also speaks. (Other voices in the report included Paul Collins who can always be relied upon to express more than a healthy scepticism about Church matters).

Discernment is Not Division

The key to an interpretation of the synod and its events is given to us, I think, in Pope Francis’ closing address to the Synod Fathers which is a profound and striking statement (you can read it here). He provides us with ‘the eyes of faith’ to continue talking about these issues with confidence.

Firstly, Pope Francis is not at all unnerved by the differing views expressed in the preceding fortnight and accepts the rigorous debates in faith as an expression of the Church discerning how to enter ever more deeply into the heart of the Gospel by the sensus fidei, the sense of faith of the faithful. As he shared,

Many commentators . . . have imagined they see a disputatious Church where one part is against the other, doubting even the Holy Spirit, the true promoter and guarantor of the unity and harmony of the Church – the Holy Spirit who throughout history has always guided the barque, through her ministers, even when the sea was rough and choppy, and the ministers unfaithful and sinners.

9954008What Francis is affirming by valuing debate over the silence of ‘a false and quietist peace’ is the capacity of the Church to receive God’s revelation faithfully and meaningfully by attending, together as people of faith in the Spirit, to tradition, including the teachings of the Magisterium, and the experience of Christian families in the world (I have written about the Church’s discernment of the Spirit here, in relation to the 2013 papal conclave).

To teach and evangelise the Church must first listen, receive time and again the deposit of faith which constitutes our living tradition and attend to the complex realities of contemporary family life which too can be a source of theological knowing.

The guarantor of the Church’s ongoing faithfulness to Christ in this multidimensional process is the Holy Spirit, as Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium affirms and which Pope Francis cited in as many words,

The universal body of the faithful who have received the anointing of the holy one cannot err in matters of belief. It displays this particular quality through a supernatural sense of the faith in the whole people when ‘from the bishops to the last of the faithful laity’, it expresses the consent of all in matters of faith and morals (Lumen Gentium 12).

This discernment of the sensus fidei, a sense of the faith and the Church’s sense for the faith, should not be a ‘source of confusion and discord’, as Francis remarked in his address, but should be entered into with confidence, trust and utmost faith in the Holy Spirit’s capacity, through diverse and even imperfect people (like you and me) to lead God’s people to the truth and mercy of God (you can read more about this connection between the deepening of tradition and the divine assistance of the Holy Spirit in Dei Verbum 8 as well as the Catechism of the Catholic Church n.892).

As well, in the process of spiritual discernment that will continue until the General Synod on the family in 2015, Francis warns of temptations or polarities. The first temptation is to be fossilised in our faith, exhibiting a ‘hostile inflexibility’ which would in fact impede the ability of the Church to bring the Gospel to new and developing circumstances. This kind of fundamentalism or rigorism can manifest a lack of faith and trust in the Spirit that guides the Church (the Marian dogmas of the 19th and 20th centuries standout as instances in which the Church has developed a deeper appreciation of her own faith). ‘Traditionalism’ is in fact not traditional at all for the pilgrim Catholic Church understands development as a perennial and necessary deepening of her self-understanding in light of the Gospel, and never a departure from it (“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life”; John 6:68)

Christ Mosaic Cefalu Sicily 12th CenturyThe other risk named by Francis, the one that media outlets were less enthusiastic to report, was the capitulation or accommodation of the Church, and the Gospel it bears, to ‘a worldly spirit instead of purifying [the world] and bending it to the spirit of God’.

The Church must engage the world, as Francis has so often stressed, but it engages the world and contemporary culture with a view of what the world really is in Christ, a world of men and women made in the image of God and called to conversion or ‘likeness’ in Christ in whom we find our origin and destiny. Thus, Pope Francis critiques outright in his concluding address,

a destructive tendency to do-gooding, which in the name of a false mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them, that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots

with the phrase ‘false mercy’ a nod to no less than St John Paul II. What does Francis mean by this? He means that we cannot truly serve people in their wounds and in their growth through crisis if we disregard the truth, if we cover over the truth with superficial or cheap dressings. As American Archbishop Kurtz put it, ‘Mercy without truth is not mercy’.

While the concrete solutions to the contemporary challenges that confront the family will be the subject of discussion over the next twelve months, the synodal process has already recalled two principles for our view of Church and mission. The first, that all people are called to Christ and the Church – as all are called to the King’s banquet in the parable of Matthew 22 – and second, that all people are called to conversion in Christ who is the source of true life  – as was the guest at the banquet called to change before approaching the table. The Church must both open wide its arms to the sinner and invite a new creation in each one of us, no matter what our state of life or circumstances may be. This is the universal hope and universal challenge of the Gospel.

Much more will be said on family and life issues in the coming year, by each of the local churches (dioceses), episcopal conferences and the observing media. As Catholics, we are being invited by Pope Francis explicitly and the debates of the synod implicitly to trust in the Spirit-filled capacity of the whole Church, all of us together, to know what the faith is and to better accompany all people in their journeys with the promise and joy of the Gospel.

 

getting started in ministry

planningLast week I met with a diocesan youth minister who was seeking advice on planning for parish communities and better coordinating their activities toward a unified mission. For me it was an opportunity to learn more about the organisation of other dioceses and their parishes which differ quite considerably across the country.

One of the recommendations that I made was that whether you are working within the context of a parish ministry, a religious order, or for a diocese it is essential to put aside some specific time for planning rather than jumping headfirst into frenetic activity.

Gregory of Nyssa, the fourth century Cappadocian Father, warned that the mere appearance of Christian activity and practice does not mean any genuine progress is being made. He likened directionless activity to

. . . those who toil endlessly as they climb uphill in sand. Even though they take long steps, their footing in the sand always slips downhill, so that, although there is much motion, no progress results from it. (The Life of Moses)

Genuine progress demands beginning on firm ground, including the effort to plan, otherwise we risk expending a lot of energy in ministries that make little progress or have little impact. As it has been put, without proper planning, direction and goals, we can be ‘paying people to be nice’.

Here are a few pointers which may be helpful for those just beginning in ministry as well as those further along in experience. These can assist both lay and ordained ministers to make the most of their opportunities and reduce the amount of energy lost to initiatives that are uncoordinated or ill-conceived from the start:

  • windowUnderstand the ecclesial context, history and organisational structure. One of the first things I did, and found helpful, was to request an organisational map of the diocese before all else. One of the advantages of working within the Catholic Church is that there will be a relatively firm structure, that is for sure! A map of these structures and relevant organisations within your diocese, parish, or religious network will help you identify who the stakeholders are, to identify those who link with your work and help you to avoid stepping on anyone’s toes! It is also important to quickly become familiar with the history of the context you are working in. This helps you understand people’s attitudes, opinions and actions in the present. All of this takes time, though after a year or so you should be picking up the ‘lay of the land’. If you don’t have a clear picture of the ecclesial landscape and dynamics you are working in it can be difficult to make genuine progress. After all, you can’t do it alone and need to collaborate with others.
  • Ensure ownership of your ministry by those you report to, as well as the provision of adequate resources to fulfil your ministry. This includes the need for your own ongoing formation. Accountability and governance are not only important dimensions of the Church as a human organisation but a part of the Church’s self-understanding as a theological reality. The Church is structured in such a way as to not only safeguard but to strengthen an apostolic proclamation from generation to generation. This means that those you report to, often an ordained minister, a vicar, a head of a religious institute or perhaps even a bishop, need to exercise oversight and take ownership of the work you have undertaken. Sometimes a helpful distinction is made between ‘responsibility’ and ‘accountability’ – you may be responsible for a particular work but someone ‘higher up the chain’ will be ultimately accountable for it. So regular meetings with your superior are a must. Your overseer also has responsibilities and they should support you not only in rhetoric but also in practical resources. All church organisations should be resourcing their people to succeed, not to fail, so it is important to ask for a budget that allows you to get the job done. If they could have done it for less or without expense, they would not have employed you in the first place! Finally, securing resources for your ministry also means ensuring you are not working in isolation and that you have opportunities to network with others and receive formation and/or supervision of some kind. Working in the Church means working with people and there is nothing more rewarding and challenging than that. Good supervision, networking with others and ongoing formation are essential for your longevity as a leader.
  • Establish a coherent framework for your ministry. Take youth ministry in a diocese for example. Is your ministry going to be parish-based, diocesan events-based, or a combination of these and in what proportion? No one can ‘do it all’ so what will your approach be, your principle message for young people, and what are the three goals you seek to achieve in the first year? Clarifying these basic goals and approaches to your ministry are important. It strikes me that in speaking of a ‘framework’ for your ministry those who take up an existing role often feel an expectation to simply duplicate what was before. However, again, if what had gone before was so successful or sustainable, it is doubtful that your predecessor would have moved on or that the organisation would have employed you to take it up. Once you familiarise yourself with the context and history, have the courage to begin to shape the goals that you discern as critical to the life of your community. You, also, need to own the work if you are to carry it out not only with competence but personal passion.
  • Build a reliable team throughout the planning process yet still assert leadership. As I’ve mentioned before, often Church organisations have strategic plans that no one really cares about other than its authors. No one else feels invested in the plan and so few are likely to respond to its initiatives. When you start out in your ministry, start collecting names and remembering profiles of good people with a proven record for getting things done. Remember, these may not be the people recommended to you by predecessors or the people currently in place! Ask the skilled and capable people you have identified for their views as you plan for your ministry. Not only are you getting wise advice from a gifted cohort but they may also form a future team that can help you turn the vision of your ministry into a reality. By having their say, people become genuine owners of a plan and you are on your way to building and nurturing a reliable team. Keep in mind this does not mean handing everything over to committee – it remains important to lead from the front and it is indeed an old saying that ‘if you want to kill something off send it to committee’. Work towards a style of leadership that is genuinely consultative but is unafraid to make decisions and exercise leadership when called for.

There are many other dimensions of good planning in ministry and while few of us, including myself, manage to apply or appropriate them all, it is helpful to have them before us as a resource for future thinking.

greatgrace2013For those interested in further reflection on ministry, especially since the Second Vatican Council, the Sydney Archdiocese is hosting the “Great Grace” conference next month. It is well worth attending if you can. I’ll be there speaking on the subject of “co-responsibility” and you can read my abstract and those of others here.

As the landscape of ministry develops across our Church, I will be suggesting that it is indeed possible to affirm the integrity of ministry by the non-ordained and uphold the unique charism of the ordained without compromise or a diminishment of either. As so often happens in the Church, the practice of co-responsibility is outpacing the theology and Church policy in this area. Yet this does not necessarily mean a distortion is taking place. In fact, it can herald development that is authentic to our tradition, including our self-understanding as a ‘communion’.

I hope to share more reports on the Conference and reflections on ministry in posts to come.

the Spirit of the conclave

With the collegeofcardinalsconclave set to begin tomorrow (12 March), it is worth reflecting on one of the underlying themes of these past weeks, or one of the ‘issues under the issues’ as the historian John W. O’Malley would put it.

The  issue is the role of the Holy Spirit in the life and renewal of the Church. Of course, following Pope Benedict XVI’s abdication, it is the Spirit’s guidance of the Church in the election of a new pontiff that is at the heart of our prayer at present and for good reason.

As a religious and political institution, the papacy has shaped and re-shaped human history in innumerable ways both positive and notorious (compare the papacy of Gregory the Great in the sixth century and his historic mission to the people of Anglo-Saxon England, worshipping as they were ‘stocks and stones at the edge of the world’ to that of Benedict IX in the eleventh century whose election, the result of systematic bribery on the part of his father, brought only violence, debauchery and shame to the See of Peter).

This uneven history of the papacy and its influence on both the Church and world underlines the importance of the upcoming conclave and the Spirit-led discernment that calls to be exercised by the cardinalate.

The new pontiff will not only need to meet the challenge of the sexual abuse crisis, a scandal that continues to raze the credibility and mission of the Church globally, but also the plight of persecuted Christians in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, the yet-incomplete articulation and direction of ‘the new evangelisation’ aimed principally at the West, and the abiding issues of internal reform, including that of the Roman Curia, that call for address.

While it would be comforting and reassuring to assume that the Spirit’s direction will, and has been, a full triumph in the Church, history has told us otherwise. Indeed, on the subject of papal elections, the then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger made the following, now widely-publicised, remarks on the influence of the Spirit on such an occasion:

I would say that the Spirit does not exactly take control of the affair, but rather like a good educator, as it were, leaves us much space, much freedom, without entirely abandoning us. Thus the Spirit’s role should be understood in a much more elastic sense, not that he dictates the candidate for whom one must vote. Probably the only assurance he offers is that the thing cannot be totally ruined . . .

The Cardinal went on to conclude with stark realism,

There are too many contrary instances of popes the Holy Spirit obviously would not have picked!

Erroneous decisions on the part of the Church, certainly not restricted to the realm of candidates for the Petrine Office, raise the question of the precise nature of the Spirit’s role in ecclesial discernment and decision-making for while Scripture affirms that the Spirit will indeed ‘guide us into all the truth’ (Jn 16:13) it ostensibly does not offer the community of disciples immunity from mediocrity or even calamity.

NTChurchCertainly, in the Acts of the Apostles the Spirit does appear to intervene at chosen moments in an immediate and decisive manner, leading the nascent Church towards what it should be and what it should do. For instance, we witness the power of the Spirit at Pentecost to bring about a reconciled diversity among Jesus’ disciples and later it is the Spirit who guides the Church into an embrace of the Gentiles, a decision which the apostles and elders attest as having ‘seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us’ (Acts 15:28). For Luke, the author of Acts, the power of the Spirit is at work, guiding and directing the early Church to its destination.

However, other New Testament texts, the dramatic history of the Church and our own personal experience suggest that the voice of the Spirit is not always so clear. The diverse manifestations of the Spirit as expressed in the New Testament communities (1 Cor. 12:28-31, Eph. 4:11-13, Rom. 12:6-8), while a profound gift to the Church, indubitably shape the later Johannine emphasis on the need of discernment to ensure that what has been received, experienced or testified is indeed truly of God. The First Letter of John, clearly acquainted with the experience of community discord, warns, ‘Beloved, do not believe every spirit but test the spirits . . . from this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error’ (1 John 4:1,6).

rubleviconIndeed, it is ironic that the subject of the Spirit, which ecumenical theology affirms as the principal of unity within the Church, has been at the root of some of the most significant divisions in the history of Christianity – the split of the East and West over the Spirit’s procession from the Father and/or the Son, and the Spirit’s relation to Scripture, tradition, and the sacraments including hierarchical ministry so bitterly contested at the Reformation.

What we can draw from this mixed history and the necessity of the Spirit’s discernment is that the gift of the Spirit – in all of its ‘elasticity’ as Cardinal Ratzinger puts it – does not so overwhelm the Christian that it alleviates or excuses them of the responsibility to evaluate, reflect and decide in faith but rather invites and even necessitates their active participation in that process of decision. This much is clear from the story of the primitive Church as described above (to open the Gospel of Christ to the Gentiles or to restrict proclamation of the Messiah to the House of Israel?)

In other words, the gift of the Spirit needs to be actively and constantly received by the community of the Church as it pilgrims through history, a ‘reception’ that involves the activities of listening, understanding, applying, and so truly ‘making one’s own’ the Spirit of faith and grace so that the community can be faithful to the person and message of Jesus.

The necessity of active human involvement in the Spirit-led decisions of the Church explains not only the emphasis of our tradition on being ‘docile’ to the Spirit (a spiritual tenet emphasised by Benedict XVI himself in his farewell address to the College of Cardinals) but also opens the real possibility for the non-reception of the Spirit by the Church community. This failure to heed the Spirit is evidenced not only in the grand crises and scandals of the past and recent history of the Church but also in the more ‘ordinary’, everyday failing of Christians to live the full meaning of their God-given discipleship.

The Australian theologian Ormond Rush concludes of the Church and the Spirit, ‘the human receivers of revelation are to be portrayed as active participants in discerning the way forward, co-deciders with God’s Spirit’ (cf. Rush, Still Interpreting Vatican II, 87). This ‘co-decision’ with God’s Spirit is a capacity and responsibility not simply of those who exercise authority in the Church but for the whole ecclesial body which shares the task of receiving the one Spirit, the ‘Spirit of Christ’ himself (Rom. 8:9), into its life, structures and decision-making.

CardinalsReturning to the impending conclave, though the abiding presence of the Spirit in the Church is that which ensures the Church a future as the ‘pillar and bulwark of the truth’ (1 Tim. 3:15), it remains the task of the cardinal-electors, as individuals and as a college, to be open and receptive of the Spirit’s promptings in selecting ‘the first among the successors of the apostles’ to guide the Church into this future.

As for each and every Christian, what is essential to the cardinal’s reception of the Spirit is their own conversion for it is only in holiness that one can recognise the Spirit who is holy. There can be, then, no naïve self-complacency about those Spirit-led decisions which shape our life of faith, whether they are made in the splendour of the Sistine Chapel or the more familiar surrounds of our own dioceses and parishes with their own intimate concerns and hopes for the future. It is only our conversion that enables authentic discernment, a faithful recognition, of the Spirit of Truth as it calls us to respond. As the 14th century theologian Gregory of Sinai concludes, ‘the understanding of truth is given to those who have become participants in the truth – who have tasted it through living.’ We pray that the cardinal-electors will choose well and in good faith.